Disability in the workforce: Henry Ford had it down a 100 years ago

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on March 16, 2017 # Mobility

Let’s play a little game. You are the non-disabled HR director of one of the Big Four accounting firms and you have two candidates for a cushy new job. Both went to top schools, made stellar grades, and are as personable as heck. The only difference: one is in a wheelchair, the other isn’t. Which would you hire?

You’d probably say the wheelchair wouldn’t make any difference, but remember, your job is judged by every hire. If the wheelchair user makes a lot of demands or feels marginalized, who’s going to pay? You, pal.

Stupid logic, but one practiced daily, no doubt. It is absolutely insane that people with disabilities looking for jobs have twice the rate of unemployment as people without disabilities. And I’m not talking about Grandma. I’m talking about the 16-64-year-old crowd, people in the post-ADA era who have more access than ever to schools and work sites and plenty of encouragement to go out and invent their own life. The percent of kids with disabilities in college is at an all-time high – 6% of all students – while the rate of jobholders with disabilities has either flatlined or gone down!

What am I missing here? What’s gumming up the works?

First up are all the usual excuses. People are “uneasy” around you. People with disabilities can, because of their “difference,” be moody, thin-skinned, confrontational. They will likely have health problems that cut into their productivity. Or, God forbid, if they are terrible at the job, you’ll have to let them go and they will lawyer up and sue you for workplace discrimination. Who wants all of that? Hire the able-bodied Ivy Leaguer.

Without making too fine a point, all those excuses are dated and stupid. It’s two thousand and seventeen! If someone is uneasy in your presence, they should see it as their own social defect, not yours. And no sane person in the work force, disabled or not, is going to sue because the toilet roll holder in the company restroom is too high. Have we become a nation of snowflakes who can’t handle anything or anyone outside of our protected little bubble, left or right, white or black? Let’s hope not.

Which leads me to Henry Ford, the first mass producer of cars in America. An automotive genius, Mr. Ford was no one’s idea of a bleeding-heart liberal. He was aggressively anti-Semitic and a fellow traveler in the frightful social movement of the times called “negative eugenics.” In a very small nutshell, this was a “scientific” belief that anyone who wasn’t Northern European and was weak of mind or body or moral character should simply be removed from the gene pool.

But Henry Ford was also a businessman and as such, he saw that people with disabilities, assuming they weren’t imbeciles or drunks, could make great employees on his assembly line. In his autobiography, “My Life and Work,” he lays out his thinking:

“Out of 7882 kinds of jobs (at Ford), 4034…did not require full physical capacity…I am quite sure that (in the future) there will be no dearth of places in which the physically incapacitated can do a man’s job and get a man’s wage.”

A blind man at Ford was assigned to the stock department to arrange items for shipping. In two days, the non-disabled men there were reassigned. The blind fellow could do all three jobs. Ford even hired bed-ridden people to do small-scale assembly in their hospital rooms.

He did all of this not because he was a fiery disability advocate. He did it because the disabled people he hired made him MONEY! He paid them the same and often got more in return. In the end, there were, he writes, 9,563 people with disabilities at Ford -- 234 with one foot or leg missing, 4 with both legs missing, 37 deaf, 4 totally blind, 60 epileptics, and so on.

This was manual labor, mind you, but why doesn’t the same logic apply to the Big Dome Accounting Co. mentioned above? It’s all computer work, for goodness sakes! Information technology doesn’t require feet or hearing or sight. It requires brains. Is that too hard to understand?

As I said, this is an insane, irrational, short-sighted epidemic of economic ignorance. And it’s not gene-splitting. Henry Ford had it down a hundred years ago.

© 2017 Allen Rucker

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